Rowling’s Favorite Poem Found in Oz “Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances”

We know more and less about J. K. Rowling than we think. We know, for instance, her favorite book and author, her favorite 20th Century writer, her favorite contemporary writer, and her favorite painting. We know her political leanings, her feelings about Brexit, President Trump, and Independence for Scotland, and we have been told what she thinks about Jonny Depp as Grindelwald and the supposed straight-washing of Dumbeldore. She has a very cute dog. She’s told the world what music she’d take with her to a desert island.

We don’t know, however, her favorite flavor of ice cream, her natural hair color (well, it’s not blonde or red), her plans for Cormoran Strike or Newt Scamander, or even if there will ever be a Lethal White (cue, ‘Over the Rainbow’). We don’t know which assertion she has made about C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to believe: “Cannot be in the same room with a copy and not pick it up to re-read” or “Never finished it.”

We don’t know her favorite poet. Cormoran Strike? He’s a big fan of Catullus. Jo Rowling? No idea.

This last week, though, while researching a mind-blasting revelation I’ll be sharing with you here soon, a fact that would have changed everyone’s thinking about Rowling as an author back in the Potter Wars and may do the same today (no joke), I stumbled on her favorite poem. It is Walt Whitman’s ‘Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances,’ published in the ‘Calamus’ section of the American poet’s Leaves of Grass.

Three notes about this find: (1) how we know it is Rowling’s favorite poem (and why it took nine years for the revelation to reach Potter Punditry), (2) it’s resonance with the Deathly Hallows epigraphs, and (3) it’s importance for understanding Rowling’s artistry and end-game as a writer. 

(1) How We Know It’s Rowling’s Favorite Poem

Because she told us in 2009 that it was.

She didn’t tell us, though. Rowling was asked to make a contribution of some kind to the third volume in a Penguin-Puffin book series called Kids’ Night In, the profits from which benefit the children survivors of war. Kids’ is published in Australia. You can get copies of the first two volumes in the US via Amazon, but the third never made the leap. Not that the news went totally unreported.

From The Guardian, 15 July 2009, Walt Whitman Wins Celebrity Endorsement From Rowling and Ross: Harry Potter author declares one of his poems her all-time favourite‘ — 

Rowling has revealed that her favourite poem is Whitman’s “Of the terrible doubt of appearances” from his collection Leaves of Grass…. [She chose] Whitman’s poem to be included in an anthology to raise money for the charity War Child. Fellow contributors to Kids’ Night In 3 include Morris Gleitzman, Joanna Lumley, Garth Nix and Freya North.

Editor Jessica Adams said the series had raised around £1m for charity since 1999. “It’s great that people are so excited that JK Rowling is on board as a contributor to this new book in the series,” said Adams. “Along with other VIP guests, she has chosen her favourite poem to share with us – which we’re thrilled to reproduce in the collection.” Kids’ Night In 3 will be published at the end of September by Puffin in Australia, with the editors now hoping to sell international rights in the book around the world.

I have a Potter Pundit friend in Oz who is, as you read this, searching for a copy in a library. It is no longer in print and costs close to $25 US to buy used, with S&H if mailed within Australia. We won’t know for certain this is what The Guardian and the editor of the anthology claim until we have some sort of confirmation of what is in the book, i.e., what Rowling actually said about ‘Terrible Doubt.’ I think, though, that the pick is more than credible. It could be the third Deathly Hallows epigraph.

(2) Resonance with the Deathly Hallows Epigraphs

Read the epigraphs from Penn and from Aeschylus

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house,
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground —
answer the call, send help,
Bless the children, give them triumph now.

Read Whitman’s ‘Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances.’

OF the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all—that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations 
after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful 
fable only,
May-be the things I perceive—the animals, plants, men, 
hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night—colors, densities, forms— 
May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only 
apparitions, and the real something has yet to be 
known;
(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-
found me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows, 
aught of them;)
May-be seeming to me what they are, (as doubtless 
they indeed but seem,) as from my present point 
of view—And might prove, (as of course they 
would,) naught of what they appear, or naught 
anyhow, from entirely changed points of view;
—To me, these, and the like of these, are curiously 
answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends;
When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long 
while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that 
words and reason hold not, surround us and 
pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom 
—I am silent—I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances, or that 
of identity beyond the grave;
But I walk or sit indifferent—I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.

The torment bred in the race? The comfort of friends? My dear friends? The gods beneath the earth (appearances)? “You blissful powers underground”?

(3) So What?

If you take Rowling-Murray-Galbraith as seriously as a writer and thinker as I do, this poem suggests, maybe even spells out how we are to understand what message she aims to share with her readers and how this is reflected in her artistry. No small thing.

The message is that “the appearances” of reality are its garments that cloak and conceal the body, the inner meanings beneath the surface to which, if we escape the misdirection of the senses and our preconceptions, we may penetrate and discern or know in silence, which is to say, beyond the noise, having transcended ego identity and conformed self to reality’s fabric.

To get to this alocal ‘there,’ though, this King’s Cross or metaphysical origin, means forsaking the metanarrative of power, in which we engage with the appearances of advantage/disadvantage, oppressor/oppressed, for selfless, sacrificial love.

For love and for Friendship, especially as Penn and the Quakers (and Whitman?) understood “Friends.”

Rowling’s artistry — the structures, the symbolism, the mise en abyme “mirrors in the text,” the persistence and layers of narrative misdirection, the stories told within and advancing larger stories, the puzzle quality of her work inviting re-reading and discoveries of Easter eggs planted in asides — all of it is to foster a distrust in appearances, and, like her favorite writers, Austen and Nabokov, to demand greater mental penetration, a transformed vision.

Whitman calls it “entirely changed points of view” and relates it to his intimacy with friends, a consequence of identity with another, solving the questions of and doubts about “identity beyond the grave.”

It will be good to have confirmation from Australia that this is indeed Rowling’s favorite poem. I’ll let you know what our agent in Oz finds. Until then, I think we can be fairly confident that it is a Rowling match because of its resonance with the meaning of her epigraphs and her work in general.

Let me know what you think of this discovery in the comment boxes below.

 

Contemplation of the Natural and Written Laws and the Concurrence of the One in the Other through Their Reciprocal Interchange 
Therefore it seems to me that, as rational beings (logikous ontas), we must necessarily take thought for the “body” of Holy Scripture, which is far superior to its “garments,” by which I mean its inner meanings, which are divine and exalted, as well as for the inward aspects of creation, and so hasten by means of reason (dia logou) to the Divine Reason (pros Logon), for He Himself (ho Logos autos) says: Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25) Otherwise there may come a time when we are caught having nothing, since in our urge to possess these things [the “garments” or outer meanings of Scripture and Creation] we failed to take hold of the Word, who exists and brings all things into existence, and so find ourselves like that Egyptian woman, who grasped only the garments of Joseph, completely failing to attain intercourse with the object of her desire. [see Genesis 39:12]

 

Comments

  1. Kelly Loomis says

    Looking forward to your mind blasting revelation!

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this John, it’s a great find. (And if anyone finds a copy for sale, do mention it here! Everywhere currently seems to list it as out of stock….).

    It has an odd serendipity to it that Rowling should be quoting her Libation Bearer’s epigraph again just after you’ve made this discovery.

  3. waynestauffer says

    This is a Brilliant find and analysis, John!!
    I mean, this is further testament that this series is so much more than “children’s literature.” Eleven years after the last book was released, and here we are, still recovering more insights from the stories, not just about the author and the stories, but also about the human condition.
    And your continuing capacity to pick up on the smallest of clues that take us back to the works for such insights make me keep coming back for more.
    Thank you so much.

  4. “May-be the things I perceive—the animals, plants, men,
    hills, shining and flowing waters,
    The skies of day and night—colors, densities, forms—
    May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only
    apparitions, and the real something has yet to be
    known;
    (How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-
    found me and mock me!
    How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
    aught of them;)”

    Perhaps the great Truth Whitman was pointing to was this Scripture……
    But as it is written:

    “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
    Nor have entered into the heart of man
    The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

  5. My comment is not related to this post, but I wanted to share it with you. Do I remember correctly that you made a post about the significance of colors in the Potter series? I remember someone commenting that in Fantastic Beasts, the color white is almost always a bad sign. I was watching the newest episode of Strike (Career of Evil) today and it again striked me how much there are clues about the color white. For example: Whitechapel, Whittaker and the man who raped Robin had a white patch of scar tissue on his neck. And then there’s of course the newest book, Lethal White. Do you think this is purely coincidence or even a red herring?

    Furthermore, do you think there is some kind of a cross-over thing between Harry Potter and the Strike series? Sometimes the characters feel so similar they seem to be telling the same story. Even the names are similar, for example Leta and Leda (and Lethal). I admit this is a wild notion, and could be influenced just by the fact that the author has her own style and themes that she repeats.

  6. Brian Basore says

    I hope you can confirm that Whitman’s poem is her favorite.

    Also, is there a way to find out if JKR likes Matthew Fitt’s Scots Edition (2017) of Philosopher’s Stane? She’s lived in Scotland much of her life. My Scottish connection is negligible (paternal great-great-grandfather) but I fell for Philosopher’s Stane right away.

  7. Beatrice Groves says

    Brian – John and I (with help from Jessica Adams and a number of Potter Pundit sleuths!) have now followed this up, and I’m afraid that now we have found the original book (from which Kids’ Night In reprinted the poem) it is clear that we do not have the evidence that this is her favourite poem. All we can say with certainty is that it is the poem she chose when asked to contribute a poem to a collection about refugee experience. I think we can be confident that it is a poem she likes, and finds profound and/or comforting, given the serious context of the collection – and as such I’m delighted that John has dug it up! – but as to her ‘favourite’ poem, we still know more about Strike’s preferences than her own….

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